The frustrations and aspirations of Polish voters [Interview]

Economic frustration alone is not enough to explain the current political situation. Sociologist Maciej Gdula discusses the prospects of the ruling and Law and Justice party as well as the opposition movement.

Veronika Pehe: Shortly after taking power, the Polish Law and Justice (PiS) government made a number of controversial amendments to the procedures of the Constitutional Tribunal, which led to mass protests. To what extent are the steps PiS has undertaken really a threat to the democratic functioning of the state?

Maciej Gdula: I consider the actions of PiS a real threat to the democratic order. Their aim is to create a more centralized system of power. To achieve this, they have embarked on an overhaul of major institutions. The Constitutional Tribunal is just one example of an institution where they are trying to grab control – the same thing is happening in science, culture, administration, and other areas. In this respect, the situation somewhat resembles Hungary.

Maciej GDULA
is a political sociologist. His research interests include social classes in Poland and social and political theory. He works at the Institute of Sociology of the University of Warsaw and publishes regularly in Dziennik Opinii.

But what is different is that PiS did not proclaim these intentions before the elections – their electoral campaign promised that they would be a better, more professional and more responsive government than Civic Platform, which ruled for the past eight years, but not that they would introduce such radical changes. After the elections, many people were astonished by the radicalism of their actions. Part of the reaction is also the number of people who got involved in the civic initiative called Committee for the Defence of Democracy (KOD).

KOD has been joined by a whole range of opposition parties and figures from both the Left and Right. Is the situation really so grave that the opposition needs to suspend its ideological differences and unite against PiS?

I think the situation would be different if there was no KOD. This is not just a coalition of parties – KOD is a genuine social movement.  This is something we have to recognize when we think about the contemporary situation in Poland. The role of social movements is growing. KOD is the biggest, but we should remember there also right-wing social movements. Ten years ago, social movements were not so strong, but right now they are making a real impact.

There is a kind of split on the Right: PiS is turning to the people who may not be the winners of the transformation, but they are stable; Kukiz is addressing those who are really frustrated.

For example, the government proposed a total ban on abortion. Two days after they announced this plan, a huge demonstration took place in front of the parliament, people were very angry. And what did the leaders of PiS do? They withdrew. So social movements can make a real change. And this happened due to the deep change in the architecture of communication in Poland related to the weakening of the printed press and the hegemony of Internet. I think this is crucial to understanding the political situation in Poland – the dynamics of the political field are more important than structural issues.

What kind of structural issues are you referring to?

The economic and social situation. This is not so dramatic in Poland – even during the recession, there was constant economic growth. In the last ten years, wages increased by 50%. The unemployment rate is the lowest in fifteen years, below 10%. The situation on the labour market for youth, when compared to Greece or Spain or even France is far better. The relation between income and the prices of real estate is also better than ten years ago.

I’m not saying that Poland is a social paradise. Of course, there is a huge amount of flexible labour contracts, which affects young people in particular, and the level of wages is still quite low. But when we think about inequalities, they are not that huge compared to the European average. What is important, however, is that expectations and aspirations rose in the past ten years. I think this creates a completely new situation. It also creates a space for the new Left, for parties like Razem. The young are far more eager to demand things than my generation, who are now forty, was. They are asking for more stable jobs, better earnings, more social services, housing. For us, demanding better salaries was the limit.

Was this not because in the 1990s, there was such a fascination with the opportunities offered by the free market that any kind of social demands did not have a place in public discourse?

The atmosphere was more about defending what we had, whether that was free schooling, the public healthcare system, or progressive taxation. Of course we lost a lot. But there was an atmosphere of defence; now there is an atmosphere of getting more – and this creates conditions for change.

The dominant perspective on the Left is that PiS has begun to deal with all the anger related to inequalities, unemployment, flexible labour conditions, relations between employers and employees, etc. I think this is too simple. This was true about PiS ten years ago – the first PiS government addressed those feelings and those problems, but right now, they rather address aspirations.

So who are PiS speaking to, who are their voters?

On the one hand, they are addressing the lower strata, but that doesn’t mean they are addressing the poorest. Their electorate are the middle classes, people living in the country – which is a huge part of the population, about 40%. The new party founded by rock singer Pawel Kukiz called Kukiz ‘15 has actually addressed frustrations more than PiS. There is a kind of split on the Right: PiS is turning to the people who may not be the winners of the transformation, but they are stable; Kukiz is addressing those who are really frustrated. His supporters are really young, they feel more pressure from the labour market, they know they won’t have social security and pensions when they are old, while PiS rather relates to older people living in the country or the lower strata of the middle classes.

We cannot say that our contemporary situation is just the outcome of economic frustration, it is a very complex frustration related to the lack of upward mobility, the lack of dignity of physical work, and to personal relationships.

Kukiz is interesting because – and it’s of course important for the Left to analyse this – he is addressing people who are frustrated, but this frustration is not directly towards solidarity, it is articulated as fury – fury towards those who are above, the elites, but also towards people who are at the bottom. His voters are against everyone. What my research and the interviews I have conducted show is that this part of the electorate does not feel any solidarity or proximity towards working people – they hate workers, they hate their co-workers.

Where does this hatred come from?

In my opinion, the young are under huge pressure to be upwardly mobile. If you work in manual professions, you are considered nothing, there is no dignity in physical work. They would like to escape this and become part of the middle classes – and they cannot. They would like to study, but do not have the resources, whether financial or cultural, so they drop out. They hate everyone: the working class, because it reminds them of what they want to escape, and they hate those who are above, because they are those whom they cannot join.

Is this hatred in any way also related to the hatred towards perceived “external threats”, such as refugees and Muslims?

Yes, it is connected precisely to this perception of a threat – “they” will take our jobs, our women. These voters are also frustrated because of their personal situation. Often they are single. So when they say they want to defend Polish women against refugees, they are also saying they want women for themselves. So we cannot say that our contemporary situation is just the outcome of economic frustration, it is a very complex frustration related to the lack of upward mobility, the lack of dignity of physical work, and to personal relationships. For the older generation, it is also related to a lack of perspective for their children. Sometimes people who are quite well off become infuriated when they see that their children cannot succeed in life. I think that when interpreting the political situation, one should take into account increasing aspirations, and different types of frustrations, not only economic ones.

What about the people supporting KOD? Would it be fair to say they are the more liberal urban part of the population?

It’s obvious when you look at KOD demonstrations that they are mainly attended by older people. Their critique of the government is also related to the defence of their own biographies. They are proud of the system they created and they want to defend it, because they want to be able to say that the Poland they built is good – or at least not that bad.

But if this is a defensive movement, fighting for what was already there, does it have any progressive potential?

That’s hard to say. Perhaps in the contemporary situation, the most important thing is to avoid regression. This role of KOD is very important. When it comes to progressive ideas, I think it is open – right now the movement is very broad, there are many fractions. I think the success of the movement lies in accentuating a very small common denominator – the defence of democracy. But many things depend on what kind of electoral system PiS will push through – they are talking about introducing a first-past-the-post system. If that happens, there will be definitely be a temptation for KOD to transform into something like a party.

What do you make of Razem’s strategy of staying away from KOD and the mainstream opposition?

I think they analysed the situation well, they have a better idea about the social expectations of what the opposition should do. The ruling party profited from the situation of having only two big parties. I think people were so bored and disappointed with Civic Platform in 2015 that they moved in different directions – towards the new right-wing party Nowoczesna, towards Razem, towards the United Left, which although not new, had a new leader, Barbara Nowacka. This shows that people were looking for new options and the opposition should take into consideration that people want change, they want to escape the old system of the struggle between two big camps. Razem don’t want dissolve in the larger structure of the opposition led by KOD. They understood that people are looking for alternatives – new leaders, new narratives. I’m not that sure if they should keep out in all situations. I accept that their strategy is to stay out, but showing that they are also able to cooperate with others could be a good thing, in order to demonstrate that they are not sectarian, while not losing their own identity.

Duda and Szydło would not be successful in reacting to any event. They are deprived of emotional proximity with the people, they do not have personalities, they are total puppets.

Given the surprise caused by some of PiS’s steps and the protests, are they likely to lose support amongst their own electorate?

During my ethnographic observations amongst PiS voters, I witnessed the phenomenon of a kind of cognitive dissonance: we did something, now we see the outcomes are quite the opposite – so what do we do? We ignore it for some time. Others react with laughter, claiming that nothing happened. It shows that these voters are quite nervous, they don’t want to admit that they voted for somebody who is doing things that are hard to defend. And of course, for some supporters of Law and Justice, everything that Kaczyński does is acceptable, because they believe in his leadership.

It is interesting that Law and Justice decided to create new leaders – President Duda and Prime Minister Szydło. After the elections, Kaczyński quickly deprived them of any symbolic autonomy. We all know that he is in fact in charge. This creates a very risky situation. A sentiment might grow that we are governed by people who cannot actually make decisions. Previously, Polish politics had been narrative-driven, dominated by the post-communist narrative on the one side, and the post-Solidarity narrative on the other. After Donald Tusk and Civic Platform won the elections in 2007, the whole political environment changed. Tusk understood that politics has become more leader-oriented and related to events – moments when the attention of all people is focused on one unexpected thing that destroys the rules of everyday life, undermining the obvious. During the last ten years, a whole new world of politics was built that gives more power to leaders, and that’s why Civic Platform lost when Tusk went to Brussels, as there was no one to replace him in the party. That’s also why Kaczyński is so important for his party. But he decided he couldn’t win the elections as a leader, so he put others in front. I am sure that Duda and Szydło would not be successful in reacting to any event. They are deprived of emotional proximity with the people, they do not have personalities, they are total puppets. The positon of the leader is growing in importance. PiS will be in trouble when some kind of event comes up, because they don’t have real leaders who will be able to react, and this will reveal the split in power. The question is for how long people will accept it.


Veronika Pehe
is a historian and contributing editor at A2larm.cz.